Huskies win behind Lombardi’s legs

Four touchdowns from Lombardi lead NIU to 41-14 win over Maine, pushing their record to 2-2

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Sean Reed | Northern Star

Junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi (right) runs with the ball with Maine sophomore defensive end Khairi Manns in pursuit. Lombardi scored on this play for his second of three rushing touchdowns.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — Junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi led the NIU football team with four total touchdowns in the Huskies 41-14 win Saturday over the University of Maine Black Bears.

Lombardi gained 282 passing yards and scored a touchdown pass to redshirt senior Clint Ratkovich. On the ground is where Lombardi shined, scoring three rushing touchdowns and gaining 119 yards.

Previously the starting quarterback at Michigan State University, Lombardi said head coach Thomas Hammock worked on developing a skill he’d yet to fully utilize in his career.

“I’ve played quarterback my whole career in mostly pro-style offenses, so I haven’t had a ton of work at (rushing),” Lombardi said. “Coach Hammock recommended some drills for me, some small things to help me out. For me, it’s just about getting reps in the run game, and you’ve seen how I’ve improved already, and you’ll see how I continue to improve.”

Redshirt junior wide reciever Cole Tucker (left) is chased by Maine freshman cornerback Kahzir Brown. Tucker had four catches for 114 yards in NIU’s 41-14 win on Sept. 25. (Sean Reed | Northern Star)

The Huskies’ defense shut out the Black Bears offense in the second half, including preventing points when Maine had a goal to go. Hammock said his team made adjustments at halftime and simplified their defense going into the game.

“We made some nice adjustments at halftime to the formations they were giving us,” Hammock said. “We made things simpler on defense. That was the game plan our coaches made to put our players in the best position. I think we’re going to continue to do that.”

Sophomore cornerback Jordan Gandy anchored the defense with two tackles for a loss and two pass breakups. Despite the second half performance, Gandy believes his unit needs to start games better.

“We have to work on starting as well as we finish,” Gandy said. “We have to come out with better energy, and we have to have better starts.”

Redshirt junior wide receiver Cole Tucker had four catches and 114 receiving yards that led the Huskies. Redshirt senior wideout Tyrice Richie led the team in catches with seven.

COVID-freshman running back Harrison Waylee finished NIU’s opening drive with a seven-yard touchdown run. Waylee finished with 130 rushing yards on 23 carries. 

Maine answered with a 99-yard drive that was finished with a 28-yard touchdown from sophomore running back Freddie Brock. The touchdown left the score tied at the end of the first quarter.

NIU took the lead back on the opening play of the second quarter when Lombardi found redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich uncovered for a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Black Bears retorted with a four-yard touchdown run by redshirt junior running back Elijah Barnwell to tie.

Several key connections from Lombardi to redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie helped Lombardi score a seven-yard rushing touchdown. Lombardi threw for 173 yards in the first half.

While his touchdown run put NIU in front 21-14, an interception thrown by Lombardi to Maine senior cornerback Richard Carr ended a potential scoring drive before halftime.

NIU opened the second half scoring with a 27-yard field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson but put themselves in danger when a botched handoff by NIU gave Maine great field position. 

The Huskies’ defense bent but didn’t break, and the Black Bears failed to convert a 23-yard field goal.

Lombardi and company blew the game open in the fourth. After a 66-yard catch and run by Tucker, the Huskies picked up another field goal by Richardson. Lombardi ran untouched for a 64-yard touchdown on the next NIU drive.

The Huskies put an exclamation point on the win with a forced turnover on special teams. Sophomore linebacker Nick Rattin forced a Maine muffed punt that fell right into the hands of redshirt junior long snapper Erik Abrell. 

Lombardi, who had never scored a rushing touchdown in his college career prior to kickoff, picked up his third touchdown on the following play to make it 41-14.

NIU moves to 2-2, their best start to a season since Hammock took over the program in 2019. The Black Bears move to 1-3.

The Huskies open their Mid-American Conference schedule next week in their homecoming game, hosting the Eastern Michigan University Eagles at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The broadcast will be on ESPN+.